The MLB draft is a bewildering blend of college prospects and high school prospects, present ability weighed against future projection, taking the best player available or spreading your bonus pool money throughout the draft. It’s less exact than the NBA or NFL drafts because, frankly, baseball is a harder sport to play. Teenagers can step right into the NBA and contribute. Players go from college to the NFL and become immediate stars. In baseball, the vast majority of players require years of minor league seasoning.
This year’s draft has some familiar names to longtime fans of the sport, sons of former major leaguers who should go high in the first round — maybe even first overall. The Orioles have the first pick and after years of rebuilding, the big league club has been one of the bigger surprises of the season and now they have the opportunity to add an impact talent to go with rookie catcher Adley Rutschman, who was the top overall pick in 2019.
Let’s dig into some of the storylines of the 2022 draft — the first two rounds of the three-day event will take place Sunday night in Los Angeles starting at 7 p.m. ET. You can catch the first round on ESPN.
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Is there a theme to this year’s draft?
Yes — the lack of pitching, especially the lack of college pitching. In Kiley McDaniel’s latest draft rankings, his top-rated pitcher is high school right-hander Dylan Lesko at No. 8 — and he had Tommy John surgery, which will probably knock him out of the top-10 selections. Kiley’s top-rated college pitcher is Alabama lefty Connor Prielipp — and he also had Tommy John surgery, in 2021, and pitched just 28 innings in his collegiate career. It appears no college pitcher will go in the top 10 and possibly no pitchers at all.
How rare would that be? There has never been a draft where the first 10 selections were all position players. Consider:
The last time no four-year college pitcher went in the first 10 selections was 1990, when Alex Fernandez from Miami Dade Community College, drafted fourth overall, was the only college pitcher in the top 10. Fernandez had pitched at the University of Miami as a freshman and then transferred so he could enter the draft as a sophomore.
Counting Fernandez as a college pitcher, then we have to go all the way back to 1978, when high school hurlers Mike Morgan and Andy Hawkins went Nos. 4 and 5 and USC’s Rod Boxberger was the first college pitcher at No. 11.
The latest the first pitcher was selected was actually just a few years ago in 2019, when the Reds took TCU lefty Nick Lodolo with the seventh pick. Lodolo was also the only pitcher selected in the top 10 that year, making it the only year — going back to the first draft in 1965 — with just one pitcher in the top 10.
It’s not just the projected lack of pitchers going early that make this draft unique. In his mock draft 2.0, Kiley has just six pitchers going in the first round. Going back to 1996, when the expansion Diamondbacks and Devil Rays first began drafting to give us a 30-team first round, the fewest pitchers taken have been 10 — in 2003, 2008 and 2019. The average has been 14.8 pitchers, so historically the first round has been evenly split between pitchers and position players.
Going back through those 26 draft since 1996, there have been 232 college pitchers and 153 high school pitchers taken in the first round — that’s 60% college pitchers to 40% high school pitchers (those percentages have remained about the same over the past 10 years, 62% to 38% in favor of college pitchers). So the fact that there might end up being more high school pitchers taken in the first round this year than college pitchers would also be unusual.
OK, who will the Orioles take with the first pick?
The consensus top talent in the draft is Georgia high school outfielder Druw Jones — son of 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones. Druw has similar skills as his dad. His defense in center field projects as his best tool, with his raw power and speed suggesting 30-30 potential if everything comes together. Jones is not a lock to go here — ESPN.com Insider McDaniel gives it about a 60% chance — but he is the consensus top talent.
The last high school outfielder to go 1-1 was Mickey Moniak by the Phillies in 2016 and he hasn’t developed as hoped. Before that you have to go all the way back to Delmon Young in 2003. (Or Justin Upton in 2005 if you want to count him. He was a high school shortstop who shifted immediately to the outfield in pro ball.) Of course, the best high school outfielder to ever go No. 1 was another son of a major league All-Star: Ken Griffey Jr.
Keep in mind that under general manager Mike Elias the Orioles haven’t always gone with the expected pick. Rutschman was the no-brainer No. 1 overall pick in 2019, but in 2020 the Orioles selected Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who received a $5.2 million bonus — nearly $2.6 million below the slot value of that pick. The next five picks all received a bigger bonus than Kjerstad. Last year with the fifth pick the Orioles selected Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser, who signed for about $1.2 million below slot value. In both cases, this gave the Orioles more money to spend later in the draft.
This year, the Orioles have a total bonus pool of $16.924 million, with the first pick assigned a slot of value of $8.84 million. If they don’t perceive Jones as a slam dunk No. 1 pick, they could go under-slot with another Georgia high school player, infielder Termarr Johnson, who many believe has the best hit tool in the draft. He’ll also move to second base in the pros — and no second baseman has even gone No. 1 overall. High school shortstop Jackson Holliday — son of Matt — is another possibility.
If the Orioles want somebody closer to the majors, they could go with Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee, viewed as the best pure hitter in the collegiate ranks, although he probably moves to third base in the pros. With shortstop Gunnar Henderson tearing up Triple-A and vaulting himself into one of the best prospects in the minors, the Orioles could soon have a young offensive nucleus of Rutschman, Henderson, Lee, Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays in a couple years if they go with Lee.
(In other father-and-son names to watch, Cam Collier, son of eight-year vet Lou, and Justin Crawford, son of Carl, are also likely first-round picks. Collier, a left-handed-hitting third baseman who pulled a Bryce Harper and left high school early to play a year at junior college, is a potential top-five pick.)
What’s going on with Kumar Rocker?
You might remember Rocker from last year’s draft. The star of Vanderbilt’s 2019 College World Series title team as a freshman, Rocker went 10th overall to the Mets, but the Mets never offered a contract after viewing some red flags in his medical reports. Indeed, medical records sent to teams ahead of this year’s draft revealed Rocker had a shoulder procedure last September. Rather than returning to Vanderbilt, Rocker made five appearances for Tri-City of the independent Frontier League, striking out 32 and walking four in 20 innings.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander topped out at 98 mph for Tri-City and could once again land in the first round — although it’s extremely unlikely he cracks the top 10 again. Rocker could land in the top 20, more likely in the 20-to-35 range, and some team could view him as a reliever with the idea of fast-tracking him to the majors in 2022. Think of potential playoff clubs drafting in the back half of the first round like the Mariners, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red Sox or Yankees. Note that the Braves just acquired the 35th pick from the Royals (a competitive-balance pick, which can be traded; regular picks still cannot be traded, so you won’t see a flurry of draft-day deals like you do in the NBA and NFL). Perhaps they’re eyeing Rocker with that pick.
Is there a team to watch?
The Mets are the one team with two first-round picks. They get the 11th pick as a bonus for failing to sign Rocker last year and then the 14th pick. While their bullpen could use depth, you know they won’t pick Rocker again even if he could provide immediate help there. But having two picks in the top 15 perhaps gives them an opportunity to gamble on Lesko, the best arm in the draft, if he falls.
Lesko’s situation is comparable to White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito’s situation when he was viewed as the top high school pitcher, hurt his arm, and fell to the Nationals with the 16th pick. Walker Buehler was also viewed as an injury risk his draft year coming out of Vanderbilt (he had Tommy John surgery soon after getting selected) and fell to the Dodgers with the 24th. The Mets don’t have many high-upside arms in their farm system, so gambling on Lesko with one of those two picks makes sense. When Billy Eppler was GM of the Angels he did lean to toolsy high school outfielders such as Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh, so the speedy Crawford is a possibility as well.
Is there a most intriguing player to watch?
High school outfielder Elijah Green from IMG Academy in Florida was once viewed as the potential overall No. 1 pick and he still should go somewhere in the top 10. The son of former NFL Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green, he’s 6-foot-3, 225 pounds with plus power and explosive speed — a potential 30-30 type. There are concerns about his swing-and-miss, but he has as much upside — perhaps the most upside — of any player in the draft.
Who else to watch?
Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada could land in the top five after hitting .356/.451/.728 with 26 home runs and more walks (28) than strikeouts (27). College catchers going in the top five in the past decade have produced mixed results:
The Pirates took Louisville’s Henry Davis with the first pick last year. He tore up Class A, but has hit under .200 since his promotion to Double-A (although it is still way too early to make any judgment).
Rutschman, one of the best prospects of the past decade, has reached the majors and is coming around after a slow start.
Georgia Tech’s Joey Bart went second to the Giants in 2018 and has struggled big time in the majors, shuttling back-and-forth to Triple-A. Note that compared to Parada, Bart had more strikeouts (56) than walks (41) his draft season and that’s been his big problem at the plate.
Kyle Schwarber went No. 4 to the Cubs in 2014, although was moved off catcher in the majors.
The Mariners took Mike Zunino third in 2012. His defense has been stellar, but he has hit .200 in his career.
Parada doesn’t have Rutschman’s plate discipline, but he also doesn’t have nearly as much swing-and-miss as Bart and Zunino. I like his chances to make it as an offense-first backstop.
Any other themes to note?
Let’s see how many SEC players go in the first round. The best college conference continues to grow stronger each year — both on the field where it has produced the past three College World Series champions (Mississippi, Mississippi State and then Vanderbilt in 2019), four of the past five (Florida won in 2017), and also 10 of the 20 finalists over the past 10 years — and in the draft.
SEC first-round selections over the past five drafts:
2021: 4 (Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt; Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt; Will Bednar, Mississippi State; Gunnar Hoglund, Mississippi)
2020: 7 (Heston Kjerstad, Arkansas; Asa Lacy, Texas A&M; Austin Martin, Vanderbilt; Emerson Hancock, Georgia; Garrett Crochet, Tennessee; Justin Foscue, Mississippi State; Jordan Westburg, Mississippi State)
2019: 4 (JJ Bleday, Vanderbilt; Zach Thompson, Kentucky; Braden Shewmake, Texas A&M; Ethan Small, Mississippi State)
2018: 4 (Casey Mize, Auburn; Jonathan India, Florida; Brady Singer, Florida; Ryan Rolison, Mississippi)
2017: 7 (Kyle Wright, Vanderbilt; Clarke Schmidt, South Carolina; Evan White, Kentucky; Alex Faedo, Florida; Jeren Kendall, Vanderbilt; Tanner Houck, Missouri; Alex Lange, LSU)
This year won’t match 2020, when Kjerstad, Lacy, Martin and Hancock all landed in the top six picks, but Kiley has six SEC players going in the first round and a few others that could sneak in. LSU third baseman/outfielder Jacob Berry leads the way, along with Tennessee outfielders Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert.
What about that kid who threw 105 mph?
That’s Ben Joyce, Tennessee relief pitcher. Joyce pitched 32⅓ innings for the Vols and had 53 strikeouts and 14 walks while holding batters to a .157 average — although he was tagged for five home runs. And, yes, 105 is not an exaggeration; he threw a pitch clocked at 105.5 mph on May 1 against Auburn. The only pitches known to have been throw harder, at least via official readings, were two pitches thrown by then-Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman in 2010.
There was a time when velocity alone would have made Joyce a first-round pick. Heck, Rice relief pitcher Matt Anderson went first overall to the Tigers in 1997 thanks to a 100 mph heater. But Joyce has very little experience, having pitched little in high school due to injuries, missing his first season at Walters State Community College in 2019 with an elbow injury and pitching just 20⅔ innings there in 2020 before transferring to Tennessee and missing all of 2021 after Tommy John surgery.
Maybe some team will find that fastball too hard to resist. The Rockies have four of the first 50 picks; why not the roll dice on Joyce with one of those?
What will be the questions to look back at five years from now?
1. If the Orioles bypass Jones in order to save money, will they regret it? Everyone always points to the Astros making this strategy work — Elias was the scouting director — when Houston took Carlos Correa over Byron Buxton and then used the savings to draft and sign Lance McCullers Jr. But other teams have tried it without any similar home run results.
2. Jones or Green? Which prep outfielder will blossom the most?
3. Will Collier prove to be the real gem in this draft? Collier is just 17 because he left high school early and analytical models value that — think of players like Correa and Francisco Lindor, who were 17 when they were top-10 picks. As was Harper, not that Collier is a prospect on Harper’s level.
4. Will Lesko overcome his Tommy John surgery to become the best pitcher in this draft? Or will it be another high schooler, such as Brock Porter or Brandon Barriera?
5. Does size matter? We mentioned Johnson as the high school hitter with the best hit tool; he’s 5-foot-8. Jett Williams, a high school shortstop from Texas, is also 5-8 with an outstanding hit tool, and he could be a top-20 pick, although isn’t a lock to stick at short. Sure, everyone wants the next Jose Altuve or Mookie Betts, but let’s say this … good luck.